Jesus was a layman. In his public ministry he did not present himself as a priest, nor would anyone have taken him for a priest. Priests, kohenim, came from the tribe of Levi. They were the Sadducees up at the Jerusalem Temple, the ones who performed the sacrifices, and from whom a new high priest was appointed each year. The high priest was the only one who could enter the Holy of Holies, once a year, to mediate for the whole people of Israel on the Day of Atonement.
Jesus was not one of those priests. And yet Jesus is the only one among his group (teacher and disciples) to whom the name “priest” is applied in the New Testament. And this bold appellation occurs only in one document, the letter to the Hebrews, from which today's second reading is taken. In that document Jesus of Nazareth is called not simply priest but high priest. This is a powerful image which draws upon the Israelite institution of priesthood to make a profound assertion about Jesus as mediator of atonement.
Once you are in touch with this scenario, it is easy to understand why the author of Hebrews found this function of the Israelite high priest to be the perfect symbol for interpreting the self-sacrifice of Jesus. Although in the situation of his Jewish culture he lived the life of a layperson, who he was (as eternal Son of God become human) and what he did (meeting death by crucifixion as his final act of self-giving love) makes “high priest” an exquisitely apt designation. For, as the patristic writers never tired of repeating, being both human and divine qualified Jesus as the best possible mediator and reconciler between the human and the divine.
Not content with abstractions like humanity and divinity, the author of Hebrews insists that it is Jesus’ human experience of suffering (“similarly tested in every way”) that puts him in full solidarity with humanity and especially qualifies him as mediator.
That reading from Hebrews prepares us well to savor the irony of the conversation in the Gospel between Jesus and the disciples. In this part of Mark's narrative, Jesus has just spoken to the Twelve about his coming passion, death, and resurrection. Tellingly, Mark had described the scene in a way that resonates with would-be disciples of any age: “They were on the way, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus went ahead of them. They were amazed, and those who followed were afraid” (Mk 10:32). Then, after the third passion prediction, the brothers Zebedee come forward and naively request the number-one and number-two spots when Jesus comes into his glory. When Jesus asks them if they can “drink the cup” that he drinks, they glibly say they can.
This massive misunderstanding prompts Jesus to take them, once again, straight to the core of his teaching. “The Way” on which he is leading his disciples is not first of all about the glory of resurrection but about service, even suffering service. This way of relating to others is not the way of the world, where “those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and make their authority over them felt.” Jesus’ words for describing that service are conveyed by Mark in the humblest words in the Greek language for lowdown menial service: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant [dia-konos]; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave [doulos] of all.” And the Master drives his point home by applying to himself the atonement language of Isaiah's portrait of the Suffering Servant (from which this Sunday's First Reading comes): “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
This remarkable “way” or style of life, leading as it does to Jerusalem (the place of suffering service), counters any culture; but it also promises to purify and refresh any culture. It is only possible because Jesus now mediates for us as the perfectly qualified high priest.